In the final days before last fall's midterm elections, Karl Rove joked to reporters that if Republicans did well, President Bush would get the credit - but if they did not, Rove would get the blame.
The comment was typical for this longtime political adviser: instinctively loyal, deflecting attention. But it was also, of course, wrong. For while Mr. Bush did get a bounce out of his party's historic electoral gains - and much of the recognition - his chief strategist has taken on a mythology of his own.
As the most powerful political operative in Washington - yet one who remains largely behind the scenes - Mr. Rove has long been an object of fascination for reporters and political junkies alike. But as the president heads into the second half of his term, with still-strong approval ratings and both houses of Congress now under Republican control, Rove's status has grown to Oz-like proportions. Tellingly, he is the subject of two new books - one just out, the other coming next month - titled: "Boy Genius" and "Bush's Brain." And as a measure of his perceived power, his appearance at a recent Monitor-sponsored event in Washington drew more than 70 reporters, the third largest turnout in the history of those gatherings.
Almost every modern presidency has featured a political guru - James Carville during the Clinton years, for example, or Lee Atwater during George Bush Sr.'s tenure. But both supporters and critics of the Bush administration say Rove holds a unique, perhaps unprecedented position. He works out of the West Wing, rather than at party headquarters or a private consulting shop. And his influence extends far beyond politics into policy.
Friends and co-workers say Rove's close friendship with the president, as well as his breadth of knowledge, makes him a key adviser on a wide range of issues.
"He is incomparable to any predecessors - and likely any successors - because he is so unique," says Mary Matalin, who was until recently a top adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, and who has long ties to the Bush family. "What makes him so influential is that he is truly as talented and well versed in policy as politics, and he has ... a bond and a trust with George W. Bush."
Still, Rove himself dismisses his exalted image as mostly hype. "I think this town can only operate successfully through myth, and one of the great myths is that there has to be some Svengali-like person sitting in the White House," he says. "I am not sure I provide a unique service to the president. I am one voice among many around the senior staff table."
Neutral observers point out that while Rove's record is impressive, he's not infallible, and has made mistakes on the campaign trail. During the 2000 race, he spent millions of dollars in California, which Bush wound up losing by a wide margin, while more attainable states ultimately slipped away.
And while he has been widely lauded for his recruitment of candidates during the 2002 cycle, his interference has occasionally backfired - as in California, where Rove's handpicked gubernatorial candidate, Richard Riordan, suffered an embarrassing defeat in the primary.
The administration has also drawn occasional fire from both the left and the right for policy moves that have been perceived as blatantly political - and therefore attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Rove. Bush's decision to impose tariffs on imported steel, for example, raised the ire of conservatives, while an early move to lift regulations on arsenic in drinking water provided liberal groups with an easy punch line.
Most damaging may have been some remarks Rove made at a GOP gathering last winter that seemed to imply Republicans could make electoral gains from the war on terror. Critics have seized on such statements as evidence that political concerns are dictating the administration's every move.
"You didn't see James Carville making foreign policy in the Clinton White House," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. "It's a little strange to see Karl Rove doing it."
Yet Rove has denied sitting in on national security meetings, and he casts his role in a more arcane light: "I go to exciting meetings where we deal with such things as Section 32 financing of drought relief."
Moreover, Rove's allies say there's nothing Machiavellian about his offering policy advice, since - as he and they will repeatedly tell you - "Good policy is good politics," and the former is what dictates the latter.
By most accounts, he has a unique ability to juggle a variety of tasks and topics at once. "He's tireless, and he's a multitasker," says Ms. Matalin, who adds that she's witnessed Rove conduct a meeting while talking on a cellphone, sending e-mails, and reading papers put before him.
Friends describe Rove as a voracious reader, with a keen interest in history, which they say gives him unusual perspective. While most people in his business tend to focus on immediate trends, he takes a longer view.
"There are a lot of people with the technical skills to be a campaign consultant, but what Karl has that goes beyond that is a historical perspective," says Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, whose first congressional campaign was managed by Rove. "He could dictate, without changes, a PhD thesis on a dozen presidents."
During the 2000 campaign, Rove often compared Bush to William McKinley. More recently, he has drawn comparisons with Teddy Roosevelt.
Born in Colorado and raised in the West, Rove bounced around several colleges but left before getting his degree to join the world of politics. He made a name for himself as a direct-mail specialist in Texas, and is regarded by many as a key engineer behind the GOP's rise in the Lone Star State. He also linked up with the Bush family early on, running George H.W. Bush's political action committee in Houston.
But it is his relationship with George W. Bush that has proved most critical to both men's careers. It was Rove who first saw a potential political star in Bush, at a time when few others did - and who helped mold Bush into a credible candidate during his first run for Texas governor. "If Bush hadn't met Karl Rove, he [Bush] would have had to invent him," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. "He needed that kind of help."
Friends of both men say that the two operate exceptionally well as a team - using phrases like "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." They also see eye to eye on most major issues. "He and Bush think alike - which is why it works," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who has worked closely with the administration.
Some suggest that for all Rove's reputed influence on Bush, the president may actually have had an even greater effect on his adviser, particularly in pushing his philosophical leanings further to the right.
"I think Karl has become more conservative over the past 20 years," says Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, who has known Rove for two decades. "I think that is largely the president's influence on him."
Observers also say both men are driven by the memory of what happened to Bush's father - and that they both hold as a top priority keeping the party's conservative base happy. Indeed, Mr. Land says this administration has been far better in its outreach to social conservatives than any other in his lifetime.
"In the Reagan administration, they took our calls," he says, but with the current White House, "sometimes they call us."
Rove makes clear that he's not taking Bush's reelection for granted. He says he believes the 2004 contest will be another close election, even if the economy revives and a potential conflict with Iraq gives Bush a bounce. "In the aftermath of war, sometimes public attitudes change, and people who successfully prosecuted wars are no longer in office," he says, adding pointedly: "I think that happened recently in our experience."
• Staff writer David T. Cook contributed to this report.
An expanded report on Wednesday's dinner is available on our website: csmonitor.com/breakfast